By Leslie D. Rose
Beginning with a moment of silence, over 100 people packed into the Firehouse Gallery of the Arts Council of Greater Baton Rouge on Dec. 9 for a special poetic presentation titled Behind Enemy Lines, by the Eclectic Truth Open Mic and Poetry Slam.
Awakening from the silence, the names of various young, black men whose lives were taken at the hands of law enforcement were called out by audience members. One by one, Michael Brown, Cameron Tilman, Eric Garner, Tamir Rice, Oscar Grant, Keenan Ardoin, Victor White and countless other names were released and repeated.
Hosted by Donney Rose, the audience was told that the poetic organizing group, The Poetry Alliance was inspired to hold the reading upon the suggestion of member and third rank slam poet in the world Desiree Dallagiacomo.
“As a group of poets and activists, it felt like it was the natural response from us,” Dallagiacomo said. “In ancient civilizations a key role in communities were the storytellers – they were the folks that spoke to and for the people of their tribes. I believe that the poets in Baton Rouge are some of the storytellers of our community. I think we offer a very important and necessary function, and it would be irresponsible for us to not organize a space for folks to share their stories of sadness, grief, celebration for life and community.”
Dallagiacomo continued that The Poetry Alliance and area spoken word readings have a history of activism of which she is honored to be a part. It’s a history that spans nearly twenty years in the Baton Rouge community, making it even more important that the group foster a space for the poems and conversations grown out of recent turmoil.
“In ancient civilizations a key role in communities were the storytellers – they were the folks that spoke to and for the people of their tribes. I believe that the poets in Baton Rouge are some of the storytellers of our community.”
The audience drew more than just poets as area youth workers such as East Baton Rouge Parish Public Schools’ superintendent Dr. Bernard Taylor and Baton Rouge Youth Coalition executive director Lucas Spielfogel were in attendance.
As more than 20 poets added their names to the open mic list, prophecies were shared on the microphone.
“If we wanna change shit, we’re gonna have to get a bit uncomfortable,” Rose, a poetry veteran, who is also black, warned the audiences as various poets told stories.
One poem focused on the “I Can’t Breathe” mantra taken from Garner’s last words, but it was a very different approach coming in the form of a previously middle class and battered white woman. She prefaced her poem by saying “most people don’t see their privilege because they’ve been conditioned to see it as normal.”
A 25-minute intermission took place to split the open mic list in half. Members of The Poetry Alliance facilitated discussion groups based on three questions: What was your initial response to the non-indictment in the cases of Mike Brown and Eric Garner? Do you feel that these cases were more race-related or reflective of an abusive police culture for all citizens? What have your personal interactions with law enforcement been like?
An area law enforcement worker and former youth poet who is also black, participated in a discussion where he shared that since he’s been on the force, his civil rights have been violated twice. One incident, he said he was pulled over and harassed, even after showing his badge to his fellow officer.
In another discussion group, a young, black woman was in defense of law enforcement because she grew up in the family of many officers. While group members respected her opinion, she was met by a comment from an online university instructor, later revealed as Sarah Webb, about privilege.
“It’s a privilege people take for granted to feel safe around cops,” Webb said. “It’s a privilege to believe that when you call the police they will actually show up to protect and serve you. It’s a privilege to believe that if you just don’t do anything wrong that cops will leave you alone. Black people have not had that privilege because even when we are innocently minding our own business, cops are more likely to perceive that we’re criminals just because of our race.”
Webb continued that while she knows that are many good cops out there, an issue the nation is facing is their collective stance in solidarity with the people they’ve pledged to protect and serve.
“We need the good cops to acknowledge when their peers have crossed the line, used excessive force, or failed to follow protocol,” she said. “That’s one way police officers can start to regain the public’s trust and start to repair community relations.”
The Poetry Alliance waived its regular $7 cover charge for the evening of revolution, but was still able to gain over $200 in donations, slated to be given to Dialogue on Race, an organization with the focus on the elimination of racism through education, action and transformation.
This isn’t the first rally of voices held by The Poetry Alliance, last summer a similar event was held in honor of slain Florida teen Trayvon Martin. Organizers said as long as these types of occurrences affect the community, there will be more events to help those affected overcome.
The Eclectic Truth Open Mic and Poetry Slam
Tuesdays, 7:30 – 10 pm
Arts Council of Greater Baton Rouge
427 Laurel St.